Targeting ‘axis of evil’ hampers diplomacy

President George W. Bush continues on his trip to Asian countries this week, with planned visits to Japan, China and South Korea. As expected, the current visit to Japan revolved largely around the country’s dwindling economy, where Bush has pledged America’s support to the struggling nation.

Given Japan’s ailing economy, Bush’s pledge of support is crucial in assisting the weakened Japanese government that is in danger of losing the faith of its citizens. But the president faces much more difficult tasks when he makes his way to China and South Korea – places where his foreign policy hasn’t been so well received. In these countries, the discussion is expected to focus on the war on terror – specifically, Bush’s reference to their East Asian neighbor, North Korea, as one of the three members of the axis of evil.

That the president classified Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the axis of evil during his State of the Union address has garnered him criticism – not only from the international community, but from our national media as well. Many feel the president’s vilification was inappropriate and only needlessly heightens tension in the region. The brunt of this harsh criticism has been appearing in newspapers, whose opinion pages have become flooded with columns and cartoons condemning the president’s comments.

But this criticism and condemnation doesn’t mean his classification is unwarranted; disagreement with his address and its aggressive stance on terrorism was to be expected. Hard-line Democrats and squeamish moderates have routinely denounced Bush’s militant stance on the war on terror. The editorial and opinions pages of several papers have never been worth more than toilet paper to the average conservative. The sole problem with Bush’s now infamous axis of evil speech isn’t the message but its premature timing.

Do Iraq, Iran and North Korea deserve their titles as “axis of evil” nations? Certainly. North Korea has long expressed the desire to acquire nuclear weapons and has openly hunted for the means to achieve such destructive capability. Iran, while having made improvements, continues to harbor terrorists – its borders remaining accessible to fleeing al-Qaida and Taliban soldiers. Far too many terrorists – including those responsible for the U.S. embassy bombing and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole – reside comfortably within the borders of this Middle Eastern nation.

As for Iraq, it is only a matter of time before the Bush administration finishes cleaning up the mess the Clinton administration walked away from. The economic sanctions placed on Iraq have been a long-term, ineffective way of trying to take care of a problem that should have been handled militarily. When sanctions are imposed against a dictator who cares little for the suffering of his own people, they are useless.

These are the criteria that have earned Iraq, Iran and North Korea the title “axis of evil.” Of course, most of these problems have existed for years; one might ask why we should confront them now.

The Bush administration reasons with the terrorists of Afghanistan defeated, it is necessary to pursue the war against terror on new fronts, through diplomatic pressure on other countries in order to keep them from allowing terrorists to obtain weapons of mass destruction. Given the international support following the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration feels it is crucial to seize this invaluable opportunity for global security. The State of the Union address seemed the perfect place to initiate the next phase in this righteous campaign.

Bush and his advisers prudently realized the need to move forward from a military operation in Afghanistan to diplomatic operations in other countries. They feel they need to apply pressure to other countries that condone terrorist activity.

But the country cannot afford to engage new conflicts when the existing ones have not been adequately reconciled. The situation in Afghanistan is far from over – discreet hubs of Taliban and al-Qaida soldiers still lurk in the country’s mountainous regions, planning to either rebuild or counterattack American soldiers or members of the fledgling Afghanistan government. In either event, they are regrouping and trying to restore some structure to their shattered existence. Since the new Afghanistan government is still young and unstable, until the Taliban can be rooted out and the troubled region stabilized by the Afghanistan military, the United States must remain in there. All of this will take time.

This time could have been used by diplomats to shore up relationships with Iran and North Korea, had Bush not publicly denounced those countries as “evil.” In fact, both nations have shown promise toward improvement. Iran’s support of the United States in the war on terror was a giant step for that nation. North Korea continued to work optimistically with neighbor South Korea to establish a new union between the two. Their joint appearance at the 1998 Nagano games as one team was a giant step in the right direction.

But all the aforementioned are just steps in the right direction. While two of these countries are improving their policies, they are still culpable regarding terrorist activity. The third member of the evil trinity, Iraq, has the same potential for growth – once it falls under new management, that is.

The problems with these three nations won’t disappear without our focused attention and diligence. So why did Bush bother to transform a one-front war into a four-front war? Why create animosity with several countries simultaneously when the United States could more effectively handle them one at a time?

So long as al-Qaida remains in Afghanistan, the group’s destruction should be our country’s number one objective. When al-Qaida is successfully beaten back, and the new Afghanistan government has established its control, only then will the United States be strategically prepared to engage in its other objectives in the war on terror.

These objectives could include the extraction of Saddam Hussein from Iraq and the rebuilding of that country, as well as the continued diplomatic monitoring of both Iran and North Korea – working with each to change their government and their policy toward terrorists.

The tensions created by publicly pitting the United States against the “axis of evil” nations could have been averted had the Bush administration placed a heightened value on subtlety rather than aggression. The nations on Bush’s list deserve their respectful places as axis of evil countries, but they needn’t know about it. White House officials have long known the potential threat these three nations pose; however, it might have been more beneficial if these nations didn’t know the threat we posed to them.


Chris Schafer’s column appears alternate Wednesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]